What Happened in Libby, Montana?
Nestled in the Northwestern part of the United States, Libby, Montana, has a rich history dating back thousands of years when it was home to the Kootenai Indigenous people. Over time, American settlers arrived, drawn by fur trading, railroad construction, logging, and gold mining. The town of Libby, Montana, experienced a significant asbestos industry throughout the 1900s, leaving a lasting impact on the community. In 1919, as the gold and silver rush subsided, a local lumber rancher named Ed Alley stumbled upon vermiculite deposits while exploring the old mines, shifting the town’s economic focus.
As veterans returned to Libby, Montana, after service, they unknowingly encountered asbestos, highlighting the unfortunate intersection of their military service and the subsequent health risks they walked into when returning home specifically vermiculite asbestos. Vermiculite is a mineral that contains up to 25% of asbestos and is found near Libby, Montana. Exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, and other potentially deadly diseases.
The primary concern regarding asbestos exposure in Libby, Montana, revolves around airborne asbestos fibers. Over several decades, thousands of vermiculite workers and residents in Libby unknowingly inhaled these hazardous fibers, leading to the development of asbestos-related illnesses. Disturbingly, it is estimated that approximately 2,500 individuals in Libby have suffered from such diseases due to prolonged exposure. With this in mind, examining the extent of asbestos presence and its long-lasting impact on the community is essential.
How Much Asbestos Is There?
The lumber industry thrived while the gold rush declined, and large mills took the role of abandoned mines. During this period, the significance of vermiculite, a seemingly valueless mineral at the time, came to light. Ed Alley, a veteran, saw its potential and established the Zonolite Company, producing vermiculite-based materials for insulation and fire protection. However, these materials were contaminated with asbestos and led to poisoning.
The vermiculite asbestos found contains traces of tremolite and actinolite minerals, part of the amphibole family of asbestos. With its long, milky white or gray fibers, Tremolite was commonly used in paints, roofing materials, fabrics, and insulation. Actinolite asbestos, appearing dark in color, found its way into cement and insulation products.
Tragically, many veterans and their families unknowingly used these contaminated vermiculite products, leading to mesothelioma and other lung diseases. The Libby mine, which supplied nearly 80% of the world’s vermiculite, played a significant role in the exposure experienced by the community, including veterans and service members. The use of these asbestos-contaminated products raised severe health concerns, not only for veterans but for all residents of Libby, Montana.
Montana Deaths From Asbestos Exposure and Mesothelioma
In 1963, the W.R. Grace Company purchased the mine from the Zonolite Company and remained there until its sale to Kootenai Development Co. in 1990. By then, dozens of asbestos-related diseases were being tied to the Libby mine. Residents and former workers claimed the vermiculite was tainted with dangerous amounts of asbestos.
Peak production of vermiculite occurred between the 1950s and 1970s, causing alarming amounts of asbestos fibers to be released into the air and nearby waterways. Similar to the military’s use of asbestos in the military, mine workers and residents of Libby were exposed to higher-than-average levels of asbestos during this period of time.
A study from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reported the asbestos-related mortality rates in Libby between 1979 and 1998 and found that the number of malignant and non-malignant asbestos-related respiratory deaths was 20-40 times higher than expected. The study also found an elevated risk of other diseases associated with former workers, such as lung cancer and asbestosis.
About 400 people have died from exposure to asbestos near Libby, Montana. Federal funding has been allocated to residents of Libby and other neighboring communities to receive adequate treatment and healthcare.
How Much Asbestos Is in Libby Vermiculite?
Not as much as there was once. As mentioned, Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral commonly used until the 1980s to improve aeration and retain moisture in gardens. Its lightweight nature and ability to expand when heated made it an ideal soil additive and building insulator. The large vermiculite mining company operating near Libby often donated vermiculite products to schools and residents.
Unfortunately, vermiculite deposits near Libby also contained deposits of asbestos ore. Most of the Libby vermiculite asbestos exposure took place during the manufacturing process, but the final products remained contaminated. While veterans account for more asbestos-related deaths, miners came into contact with some of the largest amounts of airborne asbestos fibers.
The common uses of vermiculite include:
- Concrete blocks
- Commercial fireproofing spray
- Attic insulation
- Seed germination additives
- Soil and soil containers
- Fish aquarium filters
Since 1990, vermiculite produced in the United States has been subject to strict safety guidelines. However, wearing a mask and following other safety precautions when working with any fibrous materials is best.
Is it Safe to Live in Libby, Montana, Now?
EPA intervention in 2001 required the cleanup of contaminated soil, dust, and insulation near the mines and within a 2-mile radius of Libby. At the time, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry tested for lung abnormalities and found higher percentages than expected among residents of the city and former mine workers.
Efforts to boost the local economy remain ongoing after Libby’s asbestos history damaged the area’s travel industry. However, residents and visitors can again enjoy the natural landscapes, including rivers, fisheries, mountain views, and parks. Decades of cleanup have mostly restored Libby and about half of the designated EPA asbestos superfund sites.
Additional Asbestos Use in the United States Military
The impact of asbestos reached far beyond Libby, Montana’s mountains, as contaminated vermiculite made its way all across the United States. The U.S. Military, particularly shipyards, extensively utilized asbestos-containing products during the 1900s. Given the challenges posed by rare diseases linked to asbestos exposure, veterans often seek specialized care at VA medical centers, where they can access the latest advancements in treatment options. The commitment to providing comprehensive care for veterans remains a top priority in addressing the long-term health effects, especially those caused by asbestos exposure. Some shipyards with a history of exposure include:
Other military bases with a history of asbestos exposure and contamination include:
Veterans who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases can find solace in knowing that their vet benefits are available to help cover the costs of treatment and other related expenses. By utilizing these benefits, veterans in Libby and beyond can receive the necessary support to confront the challenges posed by asbestos-related illnesses, ensuring they receive the care and assistance they need to lead healthier and fulfilling lives.
Lawsuits and Settlements in Libby, Montana
Thousands of legal lawsuits have been filed against the vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana. The lawsuits, which accumulatively include over 1,000 Libby residents, claim W.R. Grade and the State of Montana did not properly oversee the dangers of asbestos, warn workers, or protect nearby residents.
Libby, Montana asbestos settlements range from $500 to $50,000, depending on the level of health severity and other factors. Working with an experienced asbestos or mesothelioma attorney is the best way to guarantee a significant settlement amount.
As we conclude, it is crucial to remember the impact of asbestos exposure on veterans, particularly in areas like Libby, Montana. At MesotheliomaVets, we help veterans get in touch with the top lawyers in the United States, starting with a free case evaluation, who all have experience managing the veteran benefits experience. Even if you only worked there for a brief amount of time, you could be eligible.